Tim Benz: Gut reactions to following Gerrit Cole as opposed to Marc-Andre Fleury | TribLIVE.com
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Tim Benz: Gut reactions to following Gerrit Cole as opposed to Marc-Andre Fleury

Tim Benz
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Houston Astros starting pitcher Gerrit Cole speaks during a news conference for baseball’s World Series Monday, Oct. 21, 2019, in Houston. Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury speaks during an NHL hockey media day for the Stanley Cup, in Las Vegas on May 27, 2018.

When the World Series starts Tuesday night, former Pittsburgh Pirate Gerrit Cole will take the mound for the Houston Astros against the Washington Nationals in Game 1.

Cole’s dominant run through the postseason hasn’t exactly been embraced in the same way that one-time Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury’s was when he backstopped the Vegas Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup Final two years ago.

That spring, Pittsburgh backed Fleury and the Knights from afar as if they were a second franchise in Western Pa.

Cole’s unreal unbeaten streak since May 22 has been followed with similar intrigue in Pittsburgh.

Just not with long-distance support and wild applause. More so with bemused eye-rolls and strained sighs of “what could have been.”

Both were one-time cornerstones of the local franchises. Both left Pittsburgh with plenty of gas in their tanks. Both have gone on to great success with their new clubs.

Cole should win the American League Cy Young this year. Fleury is more popular in Vegas than hitting blackjack.

The major difference is that Fleury actually won titles here before leaving. Multiple times. As both a starter and a role player. When he went west, he did so with his top-overall draft promise fulfilled and his personality heightening his reputation as a player.

Not so much with Cole. As a Pirate, Cole tantalized with borderline ace production, an All-Star appearance and a steady presence atop the rotation of three straight wild-card teams.

But much like those Pirates teams in general, Cole left us wanting more. Everything we’ve seen in Houston the last two years since the right-hander left, we knew it was in him while he was a Pirate.

The 35 wins. The 2.68 ERA. The 602 regular-season strikeouts.

And, yes, now even the playoff dominance. He’s 3-0 with 32 strikeouts, allowing just one earned run in 22.2 innings so far this postseason.

That’s a far cry from giving up four runs in five innings against the Chicago Cubs in the NL Wild Card Game back in 2015.

Has Kyle Schwarber’s homer landed yet, by the way?

Also, when Fleury left, there was a sense that he would’ve preferred to stay forever. With free agency coming eventually and Scott Boras as his agent, there was always a sense that Cole was just biding his time here until he could leave.

So with Cole, the fascination of watching him thrive in his new home has been less about wanting to see him do well in his new uniform. It’s more about trying to figure out how the Pirates failed to extract all the potential out of him before he left.

Did the Penguins do that with Fleury? Not entirely. There were some inconsistent years here for him, to be sure. But I’d say he did enough.

Wouldn’t you agree?

By now, you’ve heard the theories as to why Cole has gotten better in Texas. Once he got to Houston, the staff there encouraged Cole to work up in the zone more often and avoid throwing his two-seam fastball. They wanted to see more four-seam fastballs and curveballs.

Good idea, I suppose.

Former Pirate and MLB network host Sean Casey was on WDVE Monday. He passed along this exchange he had with Cole at the All-Star Game this year.

“Cole said the front office analytics guys came down and said, ‘We think you are throwing too many two-seamers and sliders. We think you should be throwing more four-seamers and more curveballs.’ And that’s what he did,” Casey relayed. “Basically, he’s the same guy who sequences his pitches differently. And he went to another level.”

When Cole hits free agency after this year, his paycheck will be at another level as well. And that’s the biggest reason why he wasn’t kept in Pittsburgh, his lack of a Fleury-esque personality aside.

Some are watching Cole and bemoaning the results. Mainly because he has been fantastic, and the return Pirates general manager Neal Huntington got in the Houston trade has been marginal. Joe Musgrove, Michael Feliz, Jason Martin and Colin Moran have been average at best.

Others are watching with a kind of macabre, self-loathing sense of humor. Almost a “if you can’t laugh you are going to cry” effect.

If it is possible to fall into both camps at once, that’s where I am.

Rooting for Cole like Fleury, though? No. I’m not there yet.

And I don’t see myself getting there. That’s not all Cole’s fault, mind you.

But it’s certainly not mine either.

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Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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